walker913 asked: Hi! Can I spare a second of your time?? I just wanted to know how you got your dovetails so NEAT?!? Could you explain in a few quick steps? Was it mark up with a knife, diagonal cut with tenon saw, get rid of waste with coping saw then pare the base out with a chisel? I tried that, but they didn't look half as awesome as yours!! Any inside tips massively appreciated!!!!
It’s kind of impossible to explain in a few quick steps. To get your dovetails looking nice it takes a hundred small steps and tiny details that require a lot of explanation. Those little details are what make the difference. The entire process, just to teach (if I were standing there with you), would take a few days because it involves tool selection, set up, sharpening, layout, basic technique and procedure, then finally the hundred tiny details that separate good tails from seamless ones. Not to mention having to tweak everything so it works for you. Then you have to take all that and practice it for probably a hundred hours or so before it really starts to sink in and you can perform every step well and produce a beautiful joint (it’s easy to make a functional one, making it pretty is what’s hard). I would recommended watching Rob Cosman’s dvd on dovetailing. That’s a good start. Then read what Chris Schwarz has written about dovetailing. Then head out to the shop and practice. Despite all that, I’ll try to give a few tips:
- Use high quality tools. Cannot stress this one enough. A good saw will make a world of difference. I recommend the Lie-Nielsen Dovetail Saw. Don’t forget your chisels too, they do a lot of work in this operation. I recommend these bevel edge socket chisels.
- Sharpen constantly. You don’t need to sharpen your saw often, but sharpen your chisels and plane blades very often. Keeping them sharp will allow you to produce clean lines when chiseling down to your scribe line and less tear out when flattening your boards. Take the time to really learn how to set up your hand plane, it makes a big difference.
- Make sure your boards are flat and square. This is a massively important step that most people don’t pay enough attention to. This will affect you throughout every step of this process. I also like to number the ends of each board to keep track of them.
- Take your time laying out your tails and pins. This is huge, especially for your pins. I cut tails first, which means I transfer the tail board onto the pin board. I do this with a marking knife (a pencil is not accurate enough). Take your time squaring up your boards and lining up the edges. Make clean, clear knife lines without cutting too deep. When you’re laying out your scribe lines, make them deep and clear if you don’t mind having them show in the final product. I personally find scribe lines aesthetically pleasing, and they make chiseling out the waste areas much easier as you can just sit your chisel inside the line. If you don’t want scribe lines to show in the final piece, make the line light and trace over it with a pencil so you can see it easily while sawing and chiseling. When marking your tails, don’t go past the scribe line and keep the lines neat. You won’t be tempted to saw too far as easily and you’ll have a better time finding your line as you saw.
- Saw your tails well. You really have to take the time to practice sawing, there’s no replacement for it. Practice sawing straight, square lines, and practice sawing at a 6° and 7° angle. Keeping the blade square against the work is incredibly important when it comes time to fit your pieces together. Also, use the correct grip. Three fingers around the handle, and your index finger pointing out against the backbone of the saw (this is for a Western saw, however, I use the same grip when using a Japanese saw). I use the knuckle of the index finger of my free hand to guide the blade while sawing. However, when I’m starting my cut I will often use the tip of my index finger and then curl it in as I saw to apply more pressure to the blade. Furthermore, when sawing your tails at an angle, use the palm of your hand, the furthest point back where the handle sits in your hand, to guide the pitch of the blade. Twist the saw here to more easily guide the saw. If you try to do this at the front of the saw with your guide hand you’re going to have a harder time. Also, start at the back of your guide line on the top of the board, and slowly rock the blade down to the front. This will help keep your cut square. Once you’re square, twist with your saw hand and cut down at your angle.
- Saw your pins well. In my opinion, this is more difficult than sawing the tails. This is where your knife line comes in handy, and this next bit can be confusing. When you look at your knife line, it is actually a V. Half of the V is on the waste side of your pin, and the other half is on the side you want to keep. You need to split this line in half. This is not easy, it is very difficult, but this is what produces a pin that will fit your tail directly from the saw. Place your saw blade on the waste side of the pin, with the most outward facing point of the set of the blade over the half of the V on the waste side and saw. Focus on sawing square and straight here and saw down, splitting that line in half. Again, use the rear of your saw hand to guide the pitch of the blade. I recommend marking a practice board with your knife and practicing sawing this for a very long time. This is one of the most important steps to making a beautiful joint, and one of the most difficult.
- Use a coping saw. Or not. If you don’t like to use a coping saw to remove the waste between your tails and pins, just skip this portion. If you do, I have a couple tips. Firstly, in larger work, you’re going to have to angle the blade on the saw so you can actually cut the waste out. Secondly, try to saw as close to your scribe line as possible without going past it. In my opinion this will end up creating a better joint as you will have less material to chisel out. You won’t feel rushed while chiseling and you will save yourself some time.
- Chisel well, and take your time. It takes me longer to chisel than it does to saw, and I’m often tempted to rush here. Don’t do that. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by speeding through this and taking shortcuts. In my experience this is where most people will take a beautifully cut joint and ruin it. When you chisel down to your scribe line, you’re finishing the slot that your tails and pins will fit in. That means it needs to be straight and square because it’s going to show. Start by looking at how much waste you have on that side of the scribe line. Set your chisel down halfway between your scribe line and the end of the waste material and chop it off. Keep cutting it in half until you’re a hair away from your scribe line. Then turn your board over so the face side is down. Set your chisel in the scribe line in the back of the piece and chisel halfway through to the front of your piece. Flip it over so the face side is up, and finish the cut. This will stop you from accidentally marring the face board. Personally, I always have to twist my chisel blade slightly to the left inside the scribe line so when I begin using my mallet it will line the tip of the chisel up squarely with the scribe line. You may not need to do this. You just need to practice and find what works for you. I also use a slight angle on my chisel to undercut it a bit. People debate about this a lot, again find what works for you.
- Check boards before assembly. Set your boards against each other, as though you were about to join them together, and check them over once more to make sure everything is going to fit. This is your chance to stop very bad things from happening. If your pins are too wide you can crack your tail board, you can end up with blown out grain and a myriad of other problems. So take your time to check things over, it doesn’t take long. Keep your chisel handy to pare off extra material.
- Patiently join your boards together. Apply glue to your joints and take a scrap piece of wood that is softer than the material you’ve made your dovetails out of. Put this board on top and use it as a buffer between your hammer and your dovetails. I hammer one side in slightly, then the opposite side, and then the middle. I repeat this, tapping lightly, until the joint is joined together. I then take that board and slide it over each tail and strike it a few times to produce an even tighter fit. Remove any glue that squeezes out right away.
- Plane or sand the joint after assembly. This will clean it up and give it a nice, finished look. Make sure your plane is sharp and be wary of tear out. Tear out here is a huge bummer after all the hard work you put in.
That’s a very small fraction of what you need to know. The best thing to do is just practice and find out what works for you. Nothing replaces practice. Don’t think of it as wasted time, you’re building your skill-set and becoming more proficient in one of mankind’s most ancient arts. Enjoy your practice and you will enjoy your work. I hope that helped, feel free to message with any other questions.